The indispensable verb. Verbs have the distinction of bearing uniquely heavy responsibility for conveying the meaning of a sentence. Without a verb, there is no action and, usually, no sentence. So important are verbs that they don’t even need the company of other words to create good sentences.
Consider “Sit!” and “Enter!” These are well-formed sentences containing a predicate (the verb) and an implied subject (You) and nothing else. To be fair, it is also technically possible to craft a complete, one-word utterance consisting of a part of speech other than a verb, especially in spoken or written dialogue, but these are not usually standalone sentences. For example, “Really!” and “Baloney!” are complete utterances—but only in context. They depend for at least 50 percent of their meaning on whatever was said in the sentence that preceded them.
One clear indication that “Sit!” and “Enter!” are complete sentences and “Really!” and “Baloney!” are not is that you can diagram the first pair and you can’t diagram the second—unless you are willing to supply a lot—a whole lot—of speculative context from preceding sentences. Consider the following exhibits, in which the unstated, speculative bits are encased in parentheses:
As you can see, it is a routine and simple matter to supply the understood (you) in the first two sentences. However, you have to go quite far out on a limb to supply all the words that may be required to turn “Really!” and “Baloney!” into possible sentences. The sentences I came up with, which I diagrammed above, are:
Do you really expect me to believe that?! and
What you say is baloney!
But these are a stretch. It’s better to admit that these two one-worders are merely utterances—and quite effective in context—but not actual sentences.
Hauling freight. The freight that verbs must bear in and of themselves usually involves conveying, in addition to the mere action itself, the following qualities of the action:
(1) who is performing the action—which grammarians call person;
(2) how many people or things (i.e., one or more than one) are performing it—called number;
(3) the time when the action is being, has been, or will be performed—called tense;
(4) whether the action is actual or potential—called mood; and
(5) whether the action is active or passive, doing or being done—which is called voice.
These five elements—person, number, tense, mood, and voice—are present at least implicitly with the verb in English, and they are explicitly present within the verb form in many other languages. In this blog post, I will discuss the first two of these: person and number.
Person and number in regular verbs. Verbs must have some means of expressing whether the doer of the action they denote is the speaker (or writer), the listener (or reader), or someone else. This is person. Equally, they must have a way of showing whether there is only one or more than one doer. This is number.
For example, with the present tense of the verb fall, the possibilities are I fall, we fall, you fall, he falls, she falls, it falls, and they fall. Together these forms—verb plus pronoun—convey differences of person and number.
Indicators. So it turns out that if you want to talk about person and number in verbs (and who doesn’t), you have to talk first about another part of speech: pronouns. The pronouns I and we are the singular and plural first-person subject pronouns. The pronoun you is the second-person singular and plural subject pronoun, and the pronouns he, she, and it (singular), and they (plural) are third-person subject pronouns. In English, these personal pronouns are the primary means of showing who is or are performing the action of the verb. They are, in other words, the primary indicators of person and number in verbs. Changes in the form, or morphology, of the verb are, as we will see, secondary—and very rare.
Instead of a pronoun, of course, a noun could be used as the subject of the verb, governing its person and number. We could say, for example, Roger falls, the book falls, or stock prices fall—and in every case the noun tells us the person and number of the verb. As for person, the presence of a noun (as distinct from a pronoun) virtually ensures that the verb will be in the third person. This is because nouns in English do not have person markers; only pronouns do. Nouns are always in the third person. This is not uniformly true of all languages; in Latin, for instance, nouns, in addition to having case and number, can also convey person. The name Marcus, for example, has its own sort of second person, Marce, which is called the vocative case. It means roughly “Yo, Marcus!”
In English, nouns used in direct address, corresponding to the Latin vocative, may appear to be in the second person, as in Roger, shut up! and Death be not proud!, but the real grammatical subjects of these sentences are not Roger and Death, but—once again—the implied you. “Roger, (you) shut up!” and “Death (you) be not proud!”
Simple English persons. English is a determinedly simplifying language, and simplicity characterizes the handling of person and number in verbs. Quite simply, the base form of the verb is used across the vast majority of persons and numbers. In the example we have been using, the form fall is used in five of the six possible persons and numbers in the present tense, and falls in the remaining one (the third person singular). The same form, fall, serves again (with the appropriate helping verb) in all six persons and numbers of the future tense. Fall becomes fell in all persons and numbers of the past tense, falling is used uniformly in the progressive tenses, and fallen is on duty throughout the perfect tenses.
The bottom line is that there is only one change in form that regular English verbs use to indicate a difference in person and number—the –s or –es ending in the third person singular of the present tense. That’s it. There is no other person-indicating change in any of the other tenses.
The slight fee that English has to pay for this simplicity is that a subject pronoun or noun pretty much has to be present with every verb. In this limited sense, English is a wee bit less economical than languages that make the subject implicit in the form of the verb—Spanish, for example, in which only one word, hablo, is needed to say what in English requires two words, I speak. The first person “I” is inherent in the form of the word hablo; it’s the –o ending. He speaks would be habla, we speak would be hablamos, and so on.
In all other ways, English is a lot less profligate in its use of varying word forms than other languages.
Those complex foreigners. In many languages, person and number are indicated by changes in the form of the verb (changes in morphology), not by shifting the burden to other parts of speech, such as pronouns. What is rare in English (i.e., inflection) is ubiquitous in other languages.
Consider Latin. In my blog post of Feb. 5, 2013, entitled “A Preface to the Parts of Speech: The Joys of Weak Inflection,” I listed the 90 different forms that one regular Latin verb could take across all its tenses, moods, and voices. To a modern English speaker, this seems extraordinary, and yet the Romans blabbered away all the time, apparently never realizing that they were speaking an impossibly difficult language.
And the same is true of the speakers of Latin’s romance language successors (and of English’s relative, German, for that matter). In Spanish, for instance, the number of different forms of the regular verb hablar is very substantial (81, not counting the compound forms in which the past participle hablado remains unchanged while the auxiliary verb haber goes through its own changes). In Italian the corresponding number for parlare is 51, in French for parler it’s 48, and for the German sprechen, 28 (again, not counting compound forms using auxiliary verbs). In English we have a total of five forms of the regular verb speak (speak, speaks, speaking, spoke, and spoken). Five.
I should note that English is by no means the least inflected language in the world. As far as I know, Vietnamese, which the U.S. government was kind enough to teach me in 1970, uses only one form for the word speak (nói) through all the tenses. Vietnamese is an uninflected language (called by linguists an isolating language), relying on particles and temporal words to convey the time when someone speaks, spoke, or will speak. I understand that the same is true of other Asian languages.
Still, English is highly economical in the verb inflection department.
Another English economy—the second person. English carries simplification even further in the matter of the second person, in two ways. First, English makes no distinction between singular and plural you, relying on context alone to differentiate the two numbers. Thus we can say, with the Kinks, “Girl, you really got me” in the second person singular, and in the second person plural, with Sally Fields, “Wow, members of the Academy, you really like me!”
Second, English lacks the distinction, available in many other languages, between you (familiar) and you (formal)—in French, the tu/vous distinction; in Spanish, the tu/usted/ustedes/vos distinction; and in German, the du/Sie distinction, for example. Unlike speakers of those languages, we English speakers use the same word whether we are talking to a close relative (“Jimmy, you suck!”) or a complete stranger (“I hope you will hire me for this position, Ms. Hamilton.”).
Improper yousage. However, the first economy—having only one word to cover both the second person singular and plural—is sometimes felt as a lack, a disadvantage. This is why many English speakers have taken the reins in their hands and created a nonstandard but wonderfully useful plural form. In many parts of the southern United States, you all and y’all are used for the plural of you, and in my native Brooklyn and other urban areas of the northern United States, the form youse—formed, quite regularly, by adding an s sound to the singular you—serves as a plural.
It may not be a good idea to use these forms in writing unless you are recording dialogue, but who can deny their utility?
Person and number in irregular verbs. Irregular verbs in English don’t really display a crazy amount of irregularity either. For instance, even irregular verbs like see form the third person singular of the present tense in the usual way, by adding an s to the base form, producing sees. The irregularity of most of these verbs lies only in their past tense forms and past participle forms, which are sometimes presented in three-column lists of their principal parts, with the base or present form in column 1, the past in column 2, and the past participle in column 3.
Immediately below is a sample of such a list with a few common verbs. For lists of the principal parts of the most commonly used irregular verbs, try searching the Web. One good list is at http://www.hsunlimited.com/english-lessons/topic/irregular-verbs.php.
Of these verbs, only be shows a comparatively high degree of irregularity, using three forms in the present tense—am, is, and are—and two more in the past—was and were.
The strange case of do and say. Two other verbs—do and say—show a different sort of irregularity: an irregularity not of form, but of pronunciation. These verbs follow the regular pattern for forming the third person singular of the present tense: They add –s or –es, depending on the sound with which the root form ends. Thus do becomes does and say becomes says. So far so good.
But you have only to pronounce these two forms and you will see why English can give fits to people who are learning it. How did we ever get the perfectly standard (at least on this side of the Atlantic) pronunciations “duz” and “sez” for these verbs?